There is growing disquiet around the judging of this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, with some former judges asking if the Abbott government is tweaking the panel to be more Coalition-friendly.
The annual awards give out $600,000 in prize money across six categories. The plan was to announce the 2014 winners in July or August this year — entries closed last month — but the government is yet to finalise who the judges will be, months after they usually start reading.
Crikey understands the hold-up is in Arts Minister George Brandis’ office.
The awards were the brainchild of former PM Kevin Rudd. Up to 12 writers, publishing experts and academics are appointed to one of three judging panels. They are usually given the books — often about 150 — in December or January (that might sound like a lot of books, but after all, such a collection would easily fit on Brandis’ famous $15,000 taxpayer-funded bookcase, which sits in his ministerial office). The judges have about three months to read them and then hold successive meetings to thrash out longlists, shortlists and winners.
Some people have been sounded out to be judges, but nothing has been confirmed, and they’ve received no books. Some former judges are concerned at how committed the Abbott government is to the awards, recalling that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman scrapped the state’s literary gongs in 2012 when he won office.
“It has a bad odour around it, what’s the problem?” one former judge, who has been informally asked to judge again, told Crikey. “They should get on with it.”
The former judge says the Coalition government might be “checking out” the former Labor-appointed judges; “they are suspicious of anyone from the chattering classes”.
Another former judge suspected “the current government aren’t prepared to tick off on a panel appointed by the previous government … There is every reason to be a little bit suspicious after all this time.”
Both said the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards office had told them the hold-up was in Brandis’ office.
Those concerned don’t think the government will scrap the awards this year — PM Tony Abbott formally committed to the process on Christmas Eve — but they want to know what’s going on. A third former judge told Crikey it was “very encouraging” the government was continuing the awards, but it was time to start reading. A fourth former judge laughed and said: “Freud did say the paranoid is not entirely wrong.”
This is the email several people received just after last year’s federal election, asking them to judge in 2014:
From: Richards, Stephen
Sent: Tuesday, 17 September 2013 3:47 PM
Cc: PM Literary Awards;
Subject: 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards [SEC=UNCLASSIFIED]
I am writing to seek your advice on whether you would be interested and available in being a judge for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for the 2014 Awards.
Some Australian literary awards have had a political dimension, particularly when prizes go to non-fiction books that touch on sensitive topics. For example, it’s conceivable the Abbott government might not embrace giving awards to historian Henry Reynolds, who writes frankly on the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians and has been involved in the “culture wars”. Reynolds won the non-fiction category at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards this year.
However, the PMLA has not been caught up in the culture wars, so the Abbott government might not see the need to tweak the judges. Last year’s PMLA fiction winner was Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, while the non-fiction winners were former Australian journalist George Megalogenis’ The Australian Moment and Ross McMullin’s Farewell, Dear People, about Australian soldiers in World War I. The latter two would fit right into John Howard’s bookcase.
But suspicions of political interference in the PMLA are being fed by the Coalition’s recent record. The Abbott government has appointed sympathetic faces to plum jobs (not unusual for a new government). The Institute of Public Affairs Australia’s Tim Wilson was appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission; former Liberal frontbenchers Alexander Downer (the next high commissioner in London) and Nick Minchin (the next consul general to New York) have prospered; and the Business Council of Australia’s Tony Shepherd, seen as a Coalition sympathiser, is heading up the Commission of Audit.
Crikey asked the Arts Ministry, which is Brandis’ department, when the PMLA judges would be announced and what the department’s response was to claims of political interference. We did not hear back within our deadline, 25 hours after we made the enquiry. All we got was this standard response: “The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards judging panels are reviewed each year and are decided by the Minister for the Arts and Prime Minister.”
The PMLA categories are fiction, poetry, non-fiction, Australian history, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. Winners get $80,000 tax free, and shortlisted books get $5000. The judges are paid about $4000, and the panels do change somewhat each year. Technically the PM makes the final decision on the winners, although the judging panel’s recommendations are usually adopted. It appears there has been at least one case where the government overruled the panel’s decision.